Tax Court: Chapter 91 Request Must Be Unambiguous
Chapter 91, codified at N.J.S.A. 54:4-34, has long been a tool used by municipalities to dismiss tax appeals. Chapter 91 applies to income-producing properties. The tax assessor mails the taxpayer a written request for the income and expenses on income-producing property. Those figures help the assessor determine the value of the property for the succeeding tax year. The taxpayer must respond in 45 days. If the taxpayer does not respond within 45 days, then the taxpayer’s appeal from their assessment for the following tax year may be dismissed upon motion by the municipality (the request must be sent by certified mail for the motion to be successful). However, the tax court has recently reaffirmed that the assessor must provide proper information identifying the property to the taxpayer in the Chapter 91 request or it will be considered too ambiguous to maintain a motion to dismiss for failure to respond.
In Hocroft Associates v. Township of Bridgewater, Hocroft appealed their 2021 property tax assessment. The Township of Bridgewater moved to dismiss the complaint because Hocroft did not respond to the Bridgewater assessor’s Chapter 91 request which was sent on March 1, 2020. Hocroft argued that while they received the Chapter 91 request, the information contained therein was not clear as to which property it applied to. The cover letter and enclosed annual income and expenses form were addressed to “Income-Producing Property Owner,” not Hocroft, and did not mention a specific property. Bridgewater’s argument in response was that while the cover letter and enclosed income and expense form were not specifically addressed to Hocroft, the certified mailing slip stated it was mailed to “Block 556, Lot 1, Hocroft Assoc., PO Box 6872, Bridgewater, NJ 08807-0872.” Therefore, since the envelope was addressed to Hocroft and described the property in question, Bridgewater argued that they satisfied the requirements and that the Chapter 91 request was unambiguous.
The court was not satisfied that Bridgewater met its requirement and held the Chapter 91 request to be too ambiguous. The court focused upon New Jersey case law, which held that in a situation such as Chapter 91, where failure to respond to the request results in the complete forfeiture of the appellant’s rights, the governmental agency must ensure that there is no ambiguity surrounding what information it is are seeking. Here, since the cover letter and income and expense form were not directly addressed to Hocroft, nor was the property in question properly identified in the written request, the court denied Bridgewater’s motion to dismiss.
If you would like to read the decision, please click here.
The author acknowledges the assistance of William Olson, a Law Clerk at McKirdy, Riskin, Olson & DellaPelle, in preparing this article. Mr. Olson is a member of the Class of 2021 at Rutgers Law School.